To Me, 'Traditional' is a Four-Letter Word

The next time your aunt tells you that she doesn’t know the scientific explanation of why her (traditional Chinese medicine/reflexology/crystal therapy/”alternative medicine”) works, it “just does,” you can tell her exactly why – because of the placebo effect. So as long as she knows that she can get the same effect from a sugar pill, she can stop funding her quack healer’s SUV gas bill, and curb the market that preys on endangered species like moon bears, sharks and seahorses.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of giving out sugar pills. The placebo effect can be very powerful, because it’s not just about the pill, it’s about the cultural meaning of the treatment: so we know from research that four placebo sugar pills a day are more effective than two for eradicating gastric ulcers (and that’s not subjective, you measure ulcers by putting a camera into your stomach); we know that salt water injections are a more effective treatment for pain than sugar pills, not because salt water injections are medically active, but because injections are a more dramatic intervention; we know that green sugar pills are a more effective anxiety treatment than red ones, not because of any biomechanical effect of the dyes, but because of the cultural meanings of the colours green and red. We even know that packaging can be beneficial.

From Dr Ben Goldacre (he writes a weekly column, Bad Science, in the Saturday edition of The Guardian newspaper’s daily science page, with expanded versions of the columns with reader comments on his website Devoted to satirical criticism of scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience and quackery, it focuses especially on examples from the mass media, consumer product marketing and complementary and alternative medicine in Britain.)

God As An Evolutionary Strategy

Okay, so that’s kind of weird. I write the post below asking what the biological advantage of religion is, and completely by chance, within 48 hours, I happen to listen to an interview with Dr David Sloan Wilson, author of the book, “Evolution for Everyone” on Quirks & Quarks. He talks about that exact thing, among other things like the evolution of art and music. Basically, his theory is that religion is one of many systems to create cooperative, functional social groups, AKA communities (which as you may guess, are a good survival mechanism)

Go here to listen to it:

It’s really worth a listen. He even talks about the “sideshows” — the “sterile, Machiavellian intelligent design” sideshow and the Dawkinsesque “strident, angry attacks on religion” sideshow that throws the baby (such as it is) of religion out with the bathwater. These sideshows both draw attention away from what he calls the “main event” – serious study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.

Although the interview doesn’t really address the question as to why SOOOOOO MANY humans lean towards forming groups believing in superstition/God, rather than groups coming together in the Cult of Measuring Things Empirically (haha).

The Trouble With Dawkins

I just finished watching part one of “The Root of All Evil?” Richard Dawkins unfortunately named TV series on religion. Apart from the name, and the fact that Dawkins comes across as a big jerk and loses his temper which weakens his argument(s) when he confronts religious zealots, I have a simple criticism of his approach.

Religion is basically a complex, structured form of social superstition. The problem isn’t Catholicism or Judaism or Muslim..ism…, because getting rid of those isn’t going to address the fact that people–consistently, historically–need to find some kind of meaning to their lives. And for many, “faith” is the easy answer. Religion surrounds us and the dogma is easily accessible, even if it’s completely bonkers. As an added bonus, it’s generally quite social, which can be said to be a positive aspect. What I would like to see is a very critical, very scientific dissection of the part of our brains, minds and thought processes that makes faith and superstition so seductive. Johnny believes in God and the bible; Susan believes in the healing powers of crystals; Jan believes in past life regression; Ruprecht believes in astrology, chakras, reflexology and karma. What do these have in common? They fly in the face of being measured, of being quantifiable, and for some reason most of us like it that way. Most of us are drawn to this sort of vague, intangible, but still very organized beliefs of what exists behind the everyday world of rock, air and flesh.

Why should that be? Why is it that I can live out my life, happily and with a very strong sense of morality; that I can sleep sound at night with the belief that I am not going to be resurrected, I am not going to a paradisal afterlife, my destiny is not tied into the constellations, that there is no soul or other magical immortal energies within my body?

An enormous body of evidence compiled by millions of researchers tells me that my body is a machine composed of an incredibly complex organization of chemicals — the tiniest cog in a process which took billions of years to develop, founded in chance and completely devoid of meaning — which will some day stop working and everything that was Toren Atkinson is going to decompose and scatter. No grand creator. No spiritual destiny. Just worm food, baby. How can I find that to be completely reasonable, and still help that complete stranger with her groceries, or pick up that twenty dollar bill someone just dropped and give it back to them when there’s nothing in it for me, knowing there is no omniscient overseer judging my actions?

So what is the biological advantage in believing in baseless fantasy? Surely there must be some reason for all this’s so hugely prevalent in our species!

Why I Don't Like Patriotism or Competitive Sports.

“There can be no world peace while patriotism exists” -someone.
see also [old blog entry link]

Patriotism is kind of like hockey. We cheer for our club out of pride – sometimes pride for excellence, but more often than not simply because we see ourselves as a part of that group. If I live in Vancouver, I’m a Canucks fan. If I live in Vancouver and I’m not a Canucks fan, rather let’s say I’m a Flames fan, then chances are I’m from Calgary. If the Canucks win the Stanley Cup, holy smokes it’s celebration time, come on! (let’s celebrate) because our team is the best! But if the Tampa Bay Lightning wins the Stanley Cup, who cares? We Vancouverites certainly aren’t all going to become Lightning fans, even though they’re clearly superior to the Canucks (because the Canucks lost and the Lightning won). We don’t cheer for the winning team, we remain Canucks fans tried and true, because they are our boys! They’re from OUR TOWN! Despite the fact that only 12 of the 25 players on the roster are actually Canadian, and only two are from BC (holy crap I’m learning things about hockey writing this blog entry!)

Anthropologist Desmond Morris once told me (via TV) that human beings are designed to be tribal. Tribes today are different than the tribes of old, which were basically big families, but we still have tribes. Most people yearn to be in a club of like-minded people. We have groups of friends. We have ukelele circles, or freemason meetings, or hockey teams. It’s only natural to become a part of a group of people that’s not too small, not too large, but just right.

But these tribes of patriots and hockey fans that we are so proud to belong to, and that bring us “together” are a little weirder, and have very little to do with friendship or common interests. Of all the hockey fans I know, nobody actually knows any of the players except through the media. I could understand cheering for the Canucks if I had a good friend on the team. Of all the patriots I know–those people who brandish Canadian flags on their hats–nobody knows the policymakers or the prime minister. In fact most of us don’t keep up on politics and have very little interest in contributing to the country. The fact is that personally I probably wouldn’t care to spend time with most Canadians, and I don’t take pride in the history of exploitation, war and injustice that made this country great.

But I find myself in a world where being unsupportive of these tribes that are based on pride and territorialism gets me, at best, dirty looks. It’s a recipe for alienation and I’m sure if I was more vocal about it the backlash would be more significant. And this is the worst part of these clubs – they tend to behave like wolf packs, with bitter rivalry over territories, competing for competition’s sake. Americans suck because their education system is flawed and have shitty health care and too many guns! (Isn’t it ironic that the most heated rivalries are often with our closest neighbors) Tampa Bay Lightning sucks because…because Vancouver Canucks rule! And the tragedy is in our modern world we don’t need to behave like wolves snarling over the same elk. We don’t need to fight over land and trophies. This is not progress! I was born in Canada but I don’t want to be known as a Canadian. I don’t consider myself a countryman. I can just be a human being on the planet Earth.

Go local planet! Up with Earth, down with Mars!

further reading:

Exerpts from “The Case Against Competition” by Alfie Kohn (with edits by me) [link to full article]

After five years of investigating the topic, looking at research from psychology, sociology, education and other fields…I’m now convinced that…competition is bad news. It’s not just that we overdo it or misapply it. The trouble lies with competition itself. The best amount of competition for our children is none at all, and the very phrase “healthy competition” is actually a contradiction in terms.

That may sound extreme…but some things aren’t just bad because they’re done to excess; some things are inherently destructive. Competition, which simply means that one person can succeed only if others fail, is one of those things. It’s always unnecessary and inappropriate at school, at play and at home.

Think for a moment about the goals you have for your children. Chances are you want them to develop healthy self-esteem, to accept themselves as basically good people. You want them to become successful, to achieve the excellence of which they’re capable. You want them to have loving and supportive relationships. And you want them to enjoy themselves.

These are fine goals. But competition not only isn’t necessary for reaching them — it actually undermines them.

Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it’s obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn’t build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten.

In a competitive culture, a child is told that it isn’t enough to be good — he must triumph over others. Success comes to be defined as victory, even though these are really two very different things.

This is not to say that children shouldn’t learn discipline and tenacity, that they shouldn’t be encouraged to succeed or even have a nodding acquaintance with failure. But none of these requires winning and losing — that is, having to beat other children and worry about being beaten. When classrooms and playing fields are based on cooperation rather than competition, children feel better about themselves. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem doesn’t depend on winning a spelling bee or a [hockey] game.

There is…evidence that productivity in the workplace suffers as a result of competition. Sixty-five…studies found that children learn better when they work cooperatively as opposed to competitively, eight found the reverse, and 36 found no significant difference. children do not learn better when education is transformed into a competitive struggle. Competition makes kids anxious and that interferes with concentration. Competition doesn’t permit them to share their talents and resources as cooperation does, so they can’t learn from one another. Finally, trying to be Number One distracts them from what they’re supposed to be learning. It may seem paradoxical, but when a student concentrates on the reward (an A or a gold star or a trophy), she becomes less interested in what she’s doing. The result: Performance declines.

Competition is a recipe for hostility. By definition, not everyone can win a contest. If one child wins, another cannot. This means that each child inevitably comes to regard others as obstacles to his or her own success. Competition leads children to envy winners, to dismiss losers (there’s no nastier epithet in our language than “Loser!”) and to be suspicious of just about everyone. Competition makes it difficult to regard others as potential friends or collaborators; even if you’re not my rival today, you could be tomorrow…Trying to outdo someone is not conducive to trust — indeed, it would be irrational to trust someone who gains from your failure. At best, competition leads one to look at others through narrowed eyes; at worst, it invites outright aggression. Existing relationships are strained to the breaking point, while new friendships are often nipped in the bud. When children compete, they are less able to take the perspective of others…Competitive children [are] less empathetic and less generous than others.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is marvelously successful at helping children to communicate effectively, to trust in others and to accept those who are different from themselves. Competition interferes with these goals and often results in outright antisocial behavior.

Bad Actors

Pursuant to my previous post about starting up a Vancouver chapter of Improv Everywhere, I had a couple of ideas.

If we can get about 30 people, dressed up like homeless people, and if we can find a suitable spot, we could lay down and spell out the words “spare change” in human bodies. Maybe even ‘snore talk’ “spare change.”

This second idea I like even better. You know how you can go to Stanley Park or to fairs and whatnot and you’ll find someone who will either draw your caricature or do a portrait of you in charcoal or conte or whatever? Well we could gather a half dozen or more people to do that. Only our portraits and caricatures would be bad. As in, grotesquely bad. The beauty of the idea is that the “artists” don’t have to know how to draw – in fact it’s better if they don’t. But we wouldn’t be drawing stick men; I mean it should look like we’re trying to do our best. And it should seem that we think we’ve done a great job and are proud of our work, even though it’s clearly terrible. And NEVER BREAK CHARACTER. I have lots of drawing materials (charcoal, pastels, pencil crayons) but participants would have to supply their own paper, stools, drawing board/easel. I think we could have a lot of fun with this! It is more of a summer thing, though.

Chili Con Crazy

Today I was interviewed for the Victoria music magazine/paper Absolute Underground. When Kevin asked me earlier in the week where and when I would like to do the interview, I decided it would be serendipity to schedule it alongside the City of Vancouver/United Way Chili Cook-Off which took place today at noon at City Hall. It was kind of surreal–especially team “Detroit Rock Chili” (I wish I had my camera to capture the KISS costumes)–but not inappropriate for a Thickets interview. A lot of fun actually!

For those looking for a night of entertainment, may we recommend…? Scarface and/or The Illusionist at The Rio Theatre. It is after all my duty to plug the best theater in town. I watched The Illusionist with Joyce the other night and it really got me thinking about some interesting stories. I always liked the idea of a guy who gets his rocks doing inappropriate impersonations. Like an actor who is studying for a role as a spy, so he starts doing things like dressing up as maintenance staff to get into secure buildings for no other reason to see if he can do it. He goes too far, gets caught, and then the government hires him to be a real spy. Maybe this story has already been done…a few times. Anyway I digress. The Illusionist reminded me of this sort of thing and it also reminded me of Call of Cthulhu (the game). The period and atmosphere were excellent. I was suprised by Rufus Sewell’s performance, it was good. Paul Giamatti is always good. Edward Norton actually didn’t have much to do in terms of acting. But, a strong film, especially the first 3/4. I’d give it 7.4/10.
So I made made the comments require registration because of all the spam I was getting. Now I’m getting complaints about the registration so I’ll take it down for now and see what happens.

Lani's Looking Out For All of Us

You are receiving this mail because you seem likely to be interested in signing on for wacky and questionable enterprises. Improv Everywhere is a group that does stunts/pranks/performance art in public places in New York, like staging a repeating time loop in starbucks. See their mission page: . I recommend starting with Moebius and Slo-Mo Home Depot.

Chapters are springing up in other cities, and there are some people interested in starting up one for Vancouver. There is a board that you can sign on to in order to get more info here:

If you are interested, and also if you know people who might be interested, a meetup is being organized for Saturday Oct 21st at the Starbucks in Station Square BBY near the Red Robin at 2pm.

My favourites are Anton Chekov and the Cell Phone Symphony, not to mention No Pants.

Rock Star Enough to Get Free Comics

Today I went to ComiCon, the monthly comic convention in the Heritage Hall on Main Street. I like it, and now that I’m getting closer to actualizing a comic, it’s become more important to me to see what’s going on. Michael T Gilbert, creator of Mr Monster, was very kind in offering advice. He showed me the tools of his trade (even let me try out his pen) and he liked the WWFJ characters that I showed him and his charming wife Janet (she writes for Uncle Scrooge and some manga). On his advice I’m going to draw a three or four page story of the WWFJ.

I always feel bad for the indie comics people. They went to all that trouble to print up their dreams, come to the ComiCon, and lay it all out, and I don’t even have the common decency to throw money at them. Even the ones that aren’t that good I have to admire, because they’ve put so much love and effort and time into it (that’s more than me). But I can’t possibly support them all. I was walking past the Critical Hit Comics table (good name, by the way) and the fellow began to give me the hard sell on their comic Outnumbered. I certainly listened and flipped through the books but I just got laid off and I’m going to be spending a lot of money in the next week or two, but I thought geez, this guy is a good salesman. The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets needs a guy like him. Anyone who reads my blog knows that self-promo is my achilles heel. So I thanked him and moved on. On the way back he called out “You know, you look a lot like Toren” as if I would know who Toren was if I wasn’t Toren, which of course I was and am. So it turns out the guy (Kevin Leeson) is a big Thickets fan and he is excited there’s a new album in the works, and he just handed me all the comics he was trying to sell me. So there you go, if you’re going to become a musician do it for the right reasons – free comics. I am in turn going to be good enough to read them (and plug them on my blog. Oh look! Done).

Oh and Brian Fukushima was there. We talked about kobolds. Ironically I am going to miss the next Vancouver Comics Jam because I’ll be at CampyCon. Wait…that isn’t ironic at all.

Almost lastly, there seems to be a local collective of girl comic artist called The Radar Friends. I like that. Okay that’s more than enough plugs. Soon I’ll do another I’m Drawing A Children’s Book Diary entry. But not right now.

On another (Slackademics) note, whose interested in learning how to read music, for free? Because Stephane will teach.

Three Quick Things

The most interesting thing I’ve listened to in a long time is this podcast of Quirks & Quarks, in which they talk about the biological programming of happiness, our desire to get it, and how it’s impossible to hang on to for any length of time. I really recommend you listen to it. General site is

Here’s a CBC video article on the Zombiewalk I partook in. I heard about the car-hitting-zombies incident days after the event. I’m glad I wasn’t on camera because those people look like idiots. (I’m not saying they are – though they might be, I don’t know.)

Thirdly, Steve Irwin, the “crocodile hunter” has died as he lived – by a dangerous animal. He was stabbed in the heart by a stingray barb. Just thought you should know. He was no David Attenborough but I admired him to some extent.

Bonus thing: Here’s an awesome quote from a recent John K blog entry:

I can’t even figure out why Nickelodeon or Film Roman or these places have live artists on staff. Why not just do what South Park does? Put the models in the computer and just copy and paste them over and over again. Why torture creative artists? I think the studios like to pretend that something creative is going on, so they hire artists then tell them not to ever make art. But dress retro so we can feel like we’re wacky.